Trust in an age of cynicism

Saturday 30 October, 10.30am until 12.00pm, Upper Gulbenkian Gallery Keynote Controversies

The end of deference in recent generations means those in authority can no longer assume automatic trust. With widespread suspicion of people in power, and myriad negative revelations about everyone from popes to politicians, corporate CEOs to climate scientists, it seems we are experiencing what one commentator has dubbed a ‘perfect storm over trust’. Opinion polls frequently demonstrate trust in a wide range of professions is at historic lows. Some celebrate this distrust of institutions as proof that citizens are less gullible, but a basic lack of trust is also apparent in our attitudes to each other. There appears to be a sense of fear and distrust across families, neighbourhoods and communities, evidenced by the rise of CCTV, and security checks for anyone working with children. Meanwhile, government policies aimed at regulating our alcohol consumption, what we eat and feed our children all imply the public can’t be trusted without official supervision. The famous slogan ‘Trust no-one’ of the 1990s TV programme The X Files appears to have become a mantra to live by. 

Anthony Seldon, author of the book Trust, argues Britain’s ‘trust deficit’ is as serious as the one affecting national finances. David Cameron and Nick Clegg have announced that ‘restoring public trust’ is a key political objective of the new government. Even in abolishing the Standards Board, which had been responsible for regulating local councillors’ conduct, communities minister Eric Pickles insisted on the need for more rather than less transparency. But how can trust be restored? Arguably, proliferating regulations, checks and demands for transparency can institutionalise distrust, not so much reassuring the public as confirming that those under scrutiny must be ‘a bit dodgy’.

What underlies the current mood of distrust? Do institutions and individuals merit such deep suspicion, or are we talking about a cultural climate that exaggerates and generalises a few isolated cases of corruption or malfeasance? Might this culture reflect a general rejection of authority per se, a loss of positive belief in human beings? Might we endanger important social bonds if we continually assume the worst of others? Have we simply become too fearful to take a ‘leap of faith’ in institutions, our friends and ourselves? Or have we reached a new age of reason, and simply recognised that such faith is hopelessly naive unless adequate safeguards are put in place?

Listen to the session audio:


Christopher Jamison
director, National office for vocation, Catholic Church of England and Wales; author, Finding Sanctuary and Finding Happiness; featured in BBC TV's The Monastery

Wendy Kaminer
US-based writer on law, liberty, feminism, religion, and popular culture; author, Worst Instincts: cowardice, conformity and the ACLU

Brendan O'Neill
editor, spiked; columnist, Big Issue; contributor, Spectator; author, A Duty to Offend: Selected Essays

Dr Anthony Seldon
master, Wellington College; historian; political commentator; author, Trust: how we lost it and how to get it back and Brown at 10

Richard Sexton
partner, PwC

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive

Produced by
Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
Recommended readings
Trust: the overlooked asset

In an era of increasing connectivity and intensifying public scrutiny, trust is the lifeblood of any organisation – a critical asset in ensuring a business’s long-term survival and success. The aftermath of the recent financial crisis has demonstrated both the vital importance of trust, and the severe consequences to economic prosperity when it is undermined by perceived untrustworthy behaviour.

PwC, October 2010

Trust: the behavioural challenge

The past two years have seen radical change in the relationship between business and society. Events ranging from the credit crunch to oil spills to ‘payment for failure’ have put businesses’ behaviour under the microscope. The widespread perception of a growing disconnection between corporate behaviour and ethical conduct has triggered a sense that global public trust in business has declined.

PwC, October 2010

Trust in an age of cynicism

What can be done to build and sustain trust in business? Is a new settlement between business and society, one based on a new form of corporate responsibility, the right tone from the top, the answer?

Richard Sexton, Independent, 15 October 2010

Number cruncher: a matter of trust

As the party conference season gets under way, how much will we believe of what politicians and commentators say? Not a lot, according to new YouGov research for Prospect.

Peter Kellner, Prospect, 22 September 2010

Brits: trust each other, or else...

Anthony Seldon’s book on how to restore trust in Britain is a hastily put together manual for how to coerce people into having faith in each other and institutions, relying on anecdotes, pop-philosophy and polls. It’s not to be trusted.

Patrick Hayes, spiked, July 2010

Climate Science: An erosion of trust?

Many climate researchers worry that scepticism about global warming is on the rise. Jeff Tollefson investigates the basis for that concern and what scientists are doing about it.

Jeff Tollefson, Nature, 1 July 2010

Trust: How We Lost it and How to Get it Back

In part a wide-ranging meditation on notions of trust and responsibility in civic society, Trust is a powerful and important analysis of ten essential areas where trust in national life has broken down.

Anthony Seldon, Biteback, 22 March 2010

Anthony Seldon: the question of trust at the core of politics

The political author Anthony Seldon tells Neil Tweedie why the nation still has lingering doubts about David Cameron as the date for an election approaches .

Neil Tweedie, Daily Telegraph, 21 March 2010

Leader: The trust deficit's heavy toll

The recession and a succession of government cuts and blunders have robbed young people of their future and of hope

Ann Mroz, Times Higher Education, 5 February 2010

Trust in politicians hits an all-time low

Poll sees MPs plummet into last place in public confidence, with business leaders close behind

Denis Campbell, Guardian, 28 September 2009

Who can you trust?

Politicians frequently agonise over whether voters find them trustworthy. But the more important question for a society may be whether its citizens believe others will treat them fairly

Marek Kohn, New Statesman, 27 June 2008

A Question of Trust

We say we no longer trust our public services, institutions or the people who run them. Politicians, accountants, doctors, scientists, businessmen, auditors and many others are treated with suspicion. Their word is doubted, their motives are questioned.

Onora O'Neill, BBC Radio 4, 2002

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